For millennia people around the globe have practiced fasting as part of many traditions, religions, and cultures. The aim then was to clear the mind, and for many, it was to get closer to God. Apart from clarity of mind they also reported many physical benefits such as fewer body aches and pains and restored energy. Today not many people seek the spiritual benefits of fasting, but multi-billion-dollar industries exist as a result of the manufacturing of supplements and drugs to help relieve body pain and also to restore energy.
Fasting today is not commonly practiced, and we mostly do it to prepare for medical tests. We also associate it with starvation although there is a stark difference. Fasting is the abstinence of food for a variable period. The purpose of the fast determines the length and intensity. If done with caution, there could be many benefits to the practice. However, starvation and consequently death are the result when fasting is practiced for too long. In the first world, starvation occurs in people suffering from eating disorders despite an oversupply of food. In the third world starvation commonly occurs because of a shortage of food. Many people also choose deprivation of food as a form of protesting while in captivity or to draw attention to a political cause. This newsletter does not cover this type of fasting; only the possible benefits from a sensible fasting practice based on what we learn from traditional fasters and science today.
A very comprehensive study on fasting was done over a period of 40 years in Russia and some of the details are available in a documentary. These Russian researchers found fasting to be helpful for several diseases; ranging from mental to physical benefits. These include diseases of the bronchi, cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal system, endocrine system, bones, joints, and skin as well as allergies and mood disorders.
Although the results of the Russian study made it to the western world, it has not been translated into English yet. However, today there are a few researchers in the USA and Europe discovering the health benefits of fasting. There are also a few facilities where you could fast under the supervision of a medical team for the health benefits it offers.
Who should not fast?
· The Russian study found that people suffering from conditions causing wasting of muscle and other body tissues such as tuberculosis, some cancers, and type I diabetes should not engage in fasting.
· It is not for children
· Pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers unless under the strict supervision of a healthcare professional.
The mechanism by which fasting works is the following. Fasting places the body under stress, and this elicits protective mechanisms for the organism. Hormones are released which cause the resting metabolic rate to go down to preserve energy, heart and breathing rates go down and blood pressure is lowered. The ‘feel good hormone’, serotonin is released and that is why people experience an improvement in mood and reduction in pain caused by inflammation. The digestive system goes in a state of rest. Today we know that our immunity greatly depends on the function of the gastrointestinal tract and if we abstain from eating, it could dedicate all its energy to this critical task. The most beneficial mechanism which promotes health while fasting is autophagy. This is where the body starts to recycle its damaged cells or cell parts and replace it with new upgraded ones. This could have a healing as well as anti-aging effect on the body. Also, regarding mental clarity, fasting releases a hormone which stimulates neural cell regeneration and consequently brain health in general. This hormone is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and is also instrumental in the regulation of appetite and weight control.
Modern research shows that fasting is also beneficial in the following cases:
o Type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome
There are many ways to do a fast for health reasons while every religion will determine its own rules. It is important to note that when you fast, you must specify the length and intensity of the fast as well as the end goal (weight, health related test numbers etc.). Fasting indicates that you do not consume anything with calories. The most intense form of fasting is the water fast where only water is consumed throughout the fast. You could decide to include other drinks which have no caloric value such as coffee, tea, and apple cider vinegar. The moment you do consume calories, the fast is OVER. You can also choose the length of the fast. It could be anything from 12 hours to 40 days or even longer.
o Intermittent fasting refers to fast every 24 hours for part of the day and could be done over a more extended period until your goal is reached. Popular fasts are 16:8 and 18:6. The first number referring to the time you spend fasting every 24 hours and the second number is the hours of your feast. What you eat in the feast period will determine the effectiveness of this fast. A ketogenic diet will support a fast in a much better way than a diet high in carbohydrates. Go for nutrient dense foods such as leafy greens and low-calorie vegetables as well as foods high in fat. See the ketogenic diet quick reference for a guideline.
o Extended fasting is any period that you abstain from food for longer than two days. In this case you should supplement for sodium, potassium and magnesium apart from all your other vitamins and minerals. It will also be wise to do it with the supervision of a healthcare practitioner and research as much as you can about the topic as you possibly could before you start your fast. Also, as this is a very lonely path to go on, get some support. There are many Facebook groups you can join if you don’t have a friend or family member that will do it with you. You will not only find support but also lots of success stories for motivation.
It is very important that when you decide to fast, that you do your research to see if fasting will serve your body in a healthy way. Get some support and plan it to minimize your risk of failure. If you do this correctly, it will be worth the effort.